The hit Broadway show ’Hamilton’ has enjoyed a meteoric rise. Less than a year ago, it opened off-Broadway, but quickly found traction and was on Broadway by midsummer. Now shows are sold out well into later this year. Few would have predicted that a show about founding father Alexander Hamilton would strike such a deep chord with a wide audience.
Much has been made about how the show has brought hip-hop and rap to the mainstream. Commentators have also marveled at the skin color of the cast, which is many shades darker than the historical characters being portrayed. These are significant, even exciting, elements, but a black and Hispanic cast spitting rap phrases about dead white men is not a classic formula for success. Those are only the obvious departures from more tried-and-true formulas for a Broadway hit. What holds audience attention, and indeed the attention of many who, despite not having seen the show, obsessively listen to the Cast Recording, is neither the music nor the cast themselves, but the words – all 20,000+ of them.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show, nursed it to maturity over 8 years, and now stars in it, has succeeded in bringing to life the long-forgotten, but oft-mythologized era of the founding of the United States. In a rare act of conviction in today’s highly commercialized entertainment realm, Miranda put the content ahead of the demographics. Instead of polling to find the market, a la Carville’s “triangulation” that shifted Bill Clinton’s agenda ever rightward, Miranda wanted a Broadway hit on his own terms, undiluted by commercial exigency.
The show tells the story of Hamilton, the archetypical immigrant, a ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore,’ who, in a rags to riches story, claws his way up in New York. And in this telling of the history, we encounter colorful, but weak, petty, and greedy people who tell us more about ourselves, about America, than could ever be gleaned from the predigested myths peddled by mainstream politicians extolling “the American dream.” Most intriguing is the figure of Aaron Burr, the “villain” of many history books who, in the show’s denouement, guns Hamilton down in a duel for honor.
While Hamilton represents the ascendency of finance and Wall Street, he is also a fiery and obsessive personality, idealistic, but hell-bent on following his own ideals. In a powerful number, Thomas Jefferson describes Hamilton in terms easily translatable to 2016:
I get no satisfaction witnessing his fits of passion
The way he primps and preens and dresses like the pits of fashion
Our poorest citizens, our farmers, live ration to ration
As Wall Street robs ‘em blind in search of chips to cash in
Burr too is hardly distinguishable from many of today’s public figures: think Donald Trump. In the show, he is regarded as something of an oddity for his open self-promotion in campaigning for president. He slithers away from taking any clear stands on the pressing issues of the day as he runs for president against Jefferson.
JEFFERSON] He’s not very forthcoming on any particular stances
[MADISON] Ask him a question: it glances off, he obfuscates, he dances
[JEFFERSON] And they say I’m a Francophile: at least they know I know where France is!
Nonetheless, he is popularly regarded as a genuine person, or as one voter puts it, ‘Like you could grab a beer with him.’ (Where have we heard this before?) Burr is portrayed as elusive and possibly unprincipled (‘talk less, smile more…’), driven primarily by his desire to be ’in the room where it happens.’ Sound familiar?
The seeds of our current state of empire in dissolution and corruption are all visible in Miranda’s account of our country’s founding. Hamilton is a far from unambiguous hero, selling out New York as the new nation’s capital in order to keep his job and keep the Treasury in New York. Burr represents the future devolution of the political sphere into unprincipled self-aggrandizing tribes, with little concern about the impact of their policies on the population.
Hamilton is a cautionary tale. It relates the almost miraculous joining of the disparate thirteen colonies, who ‘somehow defeat a global superpower‘ of the era, and the machinations required to mold the colonies into “these United States.”
No one really knows,
how the game is played,
the art of the trade,
how the sausage gets made.
Rather than fanning the myth of perfection, Hamilton highlights the corrosive flaws in the original edifice that have inexorably led to the distorted ‘American dream’ we live in today. And what better way to tell that story than in the vernacular of the today’s dispossessed, using rap, hip-hop, and an ensemble of color.
I Have the Honor to Be,
Your Obedient Servant,